The U.S. Congress has not passed significant reform to the nation’s immigration system since the 1990s, and advancing an immigration bill this term is unlikely thanks to the 118th Congress’ divided government. Still, instead of succumbing to legislative gridlock, the executive branch can use this term to enact meaningful changes and updates to immigration policy using existing agency authorities.
The below proposals would rectify defects in the immigration system and address social and economic ills hurting U.S. citizens and immigrants alike. From reducing red tape to bolstering the healthcare workforce, these proposals advance prosperity, opportunity, and security. The administration should consider the following five policy proposals to improve the functioning of the U.S. immigration system.
1). The Department of Labor Should Update Its Schedule A Occupation List
Schedule A is a list of occupations that benefit from expedited visa processing because the Department of Labor (DOL) has determined a shortage of domestically available workers in those fields. The list has not been updated in decades and therefore does not reflect the current U.S. labor landscape.
Updating Schedule A wouldn’t increase the number of available visas and doesn’t require Congressional action. Instead, it would enable DOL to proactively determine the types of businesses and occupations — like physicians, engineers, and truck drivers — that most need foreign labor, ensuring that a larger share of our limited visas could be utilized to respond to these needs. Additionally, employers can generally hire these shortage workers six months faster if an occupation is on the list.
The American labor market has undergone dramatic changes that warrant a refresh of the Schedule A occupation list. New occupations added to the list would improve processing for highly-valued occupations, and new DOL criteria for updates would ensure the list remains modern in the coming years. It’s a relatively simple step that would recruit valuable immigrant workers while ensuring native employees are not disadvantaged in the hiring process.
2). The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State Should Recapture Unused Green Cards and Prevent Future Green Card Waste
Each year, administrative errors lead to unused green cards, resulting in reduced economic activity and lower levels of total legal immigration. The executive branch could recapture more than 230,000 unused unemployment-based green cards, which according to estimates published by Niskanen and the Federation of American Scientists, could add $216 billion to our GDP in the next decade.
The State Department, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, could also adopt a new policy that confirms a green card remains available for an immigrant whether or not the agencies can process the relevant paperwork in that fiscal year. This technical fix would ensure that the administration issues all the green cards that Congress intended to be distributed each year, reduce unnecessary bureaucratic limitations on legal immigration, and generate billions in economic activity and revenue to federal, state, and local governments.
3). The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Should Expand the J-1 Au Pair Program to Include Care for Seniors
The State Department offers a series of programs through the J-1 visa that provides temporary access for individuals participating in work and study-based exchange programs. One program that provides cultural exchange is the au pair program, which pairs an international au pair with a U.S. family to provide childcare services in exchange for experiencing life in America.
Niskanen’s new proposal calls on the State Department to expand the J-1 au pair program to include individuals looking to provide care for seniors in the U.S. Many of the necessary requirements to care for a child overlap with the needs of Americans 65 and older—a population that is expected to reach 100 million by 2060.
Expanding the J-1 to include eldercare also furthers the mission of the program. Senior citizens play a unique role in cultural exchange by providing insight, history, and experience. By expanding this program to encompass childcare and eldercare, the administration could ensure that our youngest and oldest citizens have access to quality care and are given the opportunity to engage with individuals from around the world.
4). The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) Should Expand Private Sponsorship to Include Institutions of Higher Learning
Last month, the Biden administration announced the launch of the Welcome Corps, which enables groups of Americans to sponsor refugees privately. This is a welcome update to U.S. resettlement policy, an innovative update to the U.S. refugee resettlement policy that Niskanen has championed since 2015.
Still, the first iteration of the Welcome Corps omits a crucial stakeholder that could provide an enriching environment for refugees and sponsors: institutions of higher learning. As we wrote in a 2021 letter signed by over 50 organizations, college, and university sponsorship would “improve refugee integration outcomes, expand access to higher education for refugee students, capitalize on the many resources available in and through campus communities, and reaffirm the United States’ role as a leader in helping refugees reach safety.”
These institutions have cultural, linguistic, healthcare, and professional resources that can be incredibly helpful to refugees transitioning to the U.S. PRM can build on its early success with the Welcome Corps by creating a program for students and their families to be sponsored by colleges and universities, offering refugee students whose education was interrupted the opportunity to complete their degrees in the U.S.
The proposal relies on the same authority that PRM used to set up the Welcome Corps and has the backing of prominent educational institutions, organizations, and associations.
5). The State Department Should Restart Domestic Visa Validation
Since 2004, non-immigrants have needed to renew their visas at embassies or consulates outside of the U.S. This disruptive process imposes enormous costs and slows consular processing. Yet in the years since this procedural change, technological improvements and modernized processes have made the policy unnecessary. The administration should reverse the 2004 policy change, saving petitioners time and money and easing the stress that comes from unnecessary trips abroad.
Divyansh Kaushik and Jeremy Neufeld at the Institute For Progress argue that restarting domestic visa issuance “would allow the State Department to streamline visa issuance for a significant chunk of the applicants, while remaining in compliance with the law.” It is entirely within the administration’s power to remove this unnecessary barrier to legal immigration, which has outlived its usefulness in the digital age.
Without Congressional action, the Biden administration should consider these straightforward proposals to improve the immigration system for the benefit of immigrants and citizens alike. Modernizing procedures that prevent future green card waste, updating the list of shortage occupations eligible for fast-tracked processing, and restarting domestic visa issuance should be a priority. In addition, expanding private sponsorship and exchange visa programs will serve the national interest by reinforcing our defense of human rights abroad and advancing soft power through migration diplomacy.
The overall immigration system is due for a significant overhaul, which only Congress can undertake. But in the interim, administrative changes can make incremental, positive differences. The administration should consider and pursue these updates in the next two years, demonstrating its willingness to do what it can to help mend our legal immigration system, Congressional gridlock notwithstanding.